Judas, Benedict Arnold, Wicked Weed?

Yesterday, Wicked Weed Brewing agreed to be acquired by AB InBev, the parent company of Budweiser, Stella Artois, et al. and the largest beer company globally by a monstrous margin. Of all the craft brewing buyouts, this has made the most headlines since Ballast Point’s billion dollar deal, but has arguably sent more shockwaves throughout the craft beer community.  When Ballast Point sold, the biggest surprise to everyone was the number associated with the deal. They had been expanding so rapidly that the idea of them selling out was not entirely unfathomable. But for Wicked Weed, which I venture a good portion of you have never tried, it feels different.

Wicked Weed became popular in the brewing boomtown of Asheville, NC for doing a lot of styles well, and more recently have been a craft beer darling for their outstanding sour beers. Last year, I sang the praises of Red Angel and Angel of Darkness from my visit to the Firestone Walker Invitational. So when the news broke that they agreed to sell, it felt like losing one of the good guys. Breweries, especially sour breweries, were quick to react. Jester King, The Rare Barrel, and Black Project quickly released statements canceling collaboration beers with Wicked Weed and/or dropping out of Wicked Weed’s own invitational beer festival. Additionally, the two breweries closest to my heart, Beachwood and Modern Times, both reiterated what it means when a conglomerate gobbles up another craft brand: AB InBev is trying to fill all available “craft” beer shelves with breweries in their portfolio by any means necessary. And, as best they can, they want to do this without the consumer noticing. Increased production by Elysian, or Golden Road, or Wicked Weed ends with less independently-owned beer available.

I love a brewery with a solid backbone. @beachwoodbbq @beachwoodbrewing

Independent breweries, especially the ones that fight tooth and nail against the nefarious practices the big guys use, are small businesses that support local jobs and economies. When they succeed, the money stays in local communities. When they are acquired, the money (in this case) goes to Belgium, Brazil, St. Louis, and wherever else AB InBev has headquarters. Wicked Weed seemed like one of those small businesses, and yesterday, it let a lot of folks down–drinkers and brewers alike. It’s not illegal to sell your business for a profit–in fact, it’s one of the things many people in this country dream about. However, when that sale violates an ethical boundary many of your peers aren’t willing to cross because it would negatively affect the group as a whole, you have to be willing to live with the decision.

Beer geeks will know about this sale and, hopefully, vote with their wallet to avoid Wicked Weed in the future. Casual craft beer drinkers might not, which is exactly how AB InBev wants it. If you know better, I urge you to inform your friends which company really owns the beer they want to buy next time you’re at a bar or bottle shop. I’ve stopped (as much as I can reasonably help it) buying beer from Golden Road, Ballast Point, 10 Barrel, and Lagunitas. And after today’s second kidney punch news that Heineken is buying the remaining 50% of Lagunitas, that’s not about to change. Stay informed, and stay vigilant!

Note: I previously stated that I intended to continue to drink Ballast Point when I wrote about their acquisition. With more knowledge, this is no longer my position or my practice.

Beer, Politics, and Business

The constitutional amendment most celebrated by brewers tends to be the 21st, which repealed the 18th, which enacted Prohibition. The 21st Amendment is so beloved, we have a brewery named for it and (non-bank observed) holidays celebrating it. It’s pretty important in the world of alcohol.  Lately, it seems like another amendment has taken the spotlight in my eyes–the first, but we’ll get back to that.

When you’re at a bar, you don’t talk about religion or politics, right? What about if you’re on Facebook? What if you own the bar? Okay, so it’s not a bar in question, but in the past week or so, I’ve seen responses from two California breweries pop up on my Facebook feed that seem to cross this de facto taboo.

First, Twelve Rounds Brewery of Sacramento became embroiled in controversy when its owner, Daniel Murphy, posted “I am disgusted at all of the people and politicians that supported this anti-Trump event,” to his personal Facebook page during the worldwide women’s marches January 21. There are two important things to remember in this case: 1. He posted it to his private page and 2. It’s the internet; nothing is private. According to this Sacramento Bee article, the post was viewable by Friends and Friends of Friends, which in the craft beer community is pretty much everybody. Scrolling through the comment section where spelling prowess and generous use of the Caps Lock key seem inversely related, I noticed that there was a healthy mix of people vowing never to patronize the brewery again and others who pledged to redouble their support efforts and bring their friends down for a pint. While it’s probably too early to tell long-term, it seems Murphy’s political postings have negatively affected business, since the brewery’s Facebook page has publicly apologized and asked for forgiveness and some investors have backed out.

A little over a week and several disheartening Executive Orders later, the founder and CEO of Modern Times, Jacob McKean, posted this message to all of their social media accounts:

”I condemn the President’s attacks on immigrants and refugees with the force of 1,000 supervolcanoes. I would not be here & Modern Times would not exist if the world had closed its doors to people fleeing anti-semitism & persecution abroad; it would be hypocritical to remain silent now. To our employees, peers, friends, & fans who have immigrated to the U.S. or sought refuge here: We love you, we stand with you, & we will do everything we can to defend you.”

                              Liquid Tolerance

He sent a diametrically opposite message than Murphy, who had previously stated (again, in semi-private Facebook posts): “All Muslims want us dead. Outlaw Islam and get them out of our Country now!” McKean got a bit of backlash and some unsolicited business advice ranging from, and I’m paraphrasing,  “shut up and make beer” to “keep your business and your politics separate if you don’t want to alienate half of your customers.” While I see the logic behind comments like the second one, I commend Mr. McKean for taking a public stand.

Even though I disagree with Murphy’s statements and applaud McKean’s, it’s worth noting a few key differences. At the most basic level, the first is a message of disgust and anger (while uncovered posts from earlier demonstrate Murphy’s Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia, none of which are actual phobias but rather bigoted ideologies), and the second is one of inclusiveness and love. McKean wisely chose his words to condemn the action, not the man behind them, so as not to be accused of hypocrisy in a post about spreading love. It’s crucial to remember that the first post was semi-private and not intended to be seen, and the owner and brewery both had to do some serious backpedaling and public apologizing to save face, while the second was a willful press release that understood the repercussions of posting something not all customers would agree with.

In an environment where not making waves is the safest option, it’s refreshing to see a business show some moral fiber, as Modern Times has done. Brewing is an art, and what is art without passion? Without a strong point of view? The risks an artist is willing to take in his or her personal life ultimately appear in the art itself and Modern Times’ beer is anything but by the books. In any industry where competition can be overwhelming, this type of authenticity stands out–and to me, that’s exactly what defines Modern Times as a brand. Side note: if you think I’m being hypocritical by calling one of these statements a passionate risk and not the other, perhaps you’re forgetting the forethought that went into one and the willful ignorance and damage-control string of apologies associated with the other.

This brings me to my main point of contention, which is with the people who claim that Twelve Rounds and Daniel Murphy are being unfairly attacked for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. Freedom of speech is not, nor has it ever been, the right to say whatever you want without consequence.  With respect to this issue, the amendment simply states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. That’s it. You can say racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, or xenophobic things and Congress can’t imprison you. Luckily, the craft beer community is less forgiving.

Brews and View in Portland

Certain places just get it. Oregon is one of those places. I spent three days there over the extended New Year’s weekend and was constantly reminded of how well food and drink is done in the Beaver State. Every year, my girlfriend Victoria and I travel for New Year’s Eve and our anniversary four days later. Last year, we went to Cornwall, London, and Brighton and this year, with very little planning, we ended up in Portland.

The Stars of the Show

Our friends Brennan and Garrett were gracious enough to let us stay in their house in Southeast Portland while they were in Orange County and Dubai, respectively. Instead of heading straight there from the airport, however, we beelined for Great Notion Brewing in northeast Portland, luggage and all. Great Notion is finally getting recognized on a wider scale and for good reason: they make magnificent beer across a wide spectrum of styles. I first tried their beer last year when friends brought back Crowlers (32 ounce growler cans) of Juicebox Double IPA and their Blueberry Muffin sour beer. These, and the news they had collaborated with Alpine and Abnormal Beer Company on a vanilla stout, were enough to convince me it should be our first stop in a place saturated with great beer. All the beers I tried were excellent, but the two that really stuck out were Peanut Brother, a milk stout aged on fresh chocolate and handmade peanut butter, and Over-Ripe IPA, which had the best nose of any beer I smelled in 2016. With no added fruit or experimental hops, Over-Ripe smelled just like cantaloupe and honeydew. It was as uncanny as it was delicious.

The following morning, Victoria and I went to a cornerstone of the breakfast scene in the Rose City: Pine State Biscuits. I ordered the signature sandwich, the Reggie Deluxe, which slides a fried chicken breast, cheese, an egg, and sausage gravy all between their namesake crumbly biscuits. It looked massive and probably was, but I ate every last scrap and loved it. The sandwich was rich and savory, with creamy gravy and a crispy, juicy piece of chicken, but didn’t feel heavy at all–maybe it was because I was on vacation. Victoria’s vegetarian shiitake mushroom gravy was equally good with an understandable but unique earthiness you don’t often find in breakfast food.


Ave. No. 2 and “Elements”

With full bellies and warm hearts, we set out for the coast, traveling across a snowy pass to the tune of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, which is truly great. After winding through a white-flecked evergreen forest for nearly an hour, we descended into Tillamook, Oregon and were greeted with a beautiful, verdant vista of farmland with the coast looming a few miles towards the horizon. The green pastures are not only home to fantastic dairy farms, but also a sour beer brewery amongst the best in the world. De Garde, like so many breweries of the third wave of the craft beer movement, occupies a space in an unassuming industrial park. Were it not for the half-dozen barrels strewn about its front and back entrances, you could mistake it for screen printer, auto body shop, or a private accounting firm. Luckily, De Garde is none of these things, but rather a beery wonderland of spontaneously-fermented ales and deliciously fruited sour beers. Their beers are not one-dimensionally sour, but demonstrate layers of complexity akin to the beers made at Sante Adairius and Jester King. Clearly the brewers at these places recognized a kindred spirit in De Garde, because they teamed up for Elements of Composition, a blend made from components offered by each brewery. I thought the beer, which I poured from the bottle, did a fine job of balancing bright acidity with some earthy undertones. While delicious fresh, it was clear that this beer would develop with age and I’ve stashed a bottle away for that purpose. The other beers I tasted were the Avenue No. 2 (a wild farmhouse ale with marionberries), Alt Bu Weisse (an aged Imperial Berliner Weisse), and a guest tap offering of Jester King’s Detritivore, which is a beer I’d been wanting to try for some time. I purchased to-go bottles of what would realistically fit in our luggage home and then set off toward the coast.

We turned north once we hit the main coastal drag and it wasn’t long before we saw a sign that read “Brie cheese tasting. 1 mi.” We pulled into the gravel lot of a building that could have been an inn, but now housed a wayfarer’s station of gift shop kitsch that can only be described as folksy. Blue Heron was the type of place where you can not only sample brie, but also wine taste and dip pretzel rods in eighteen different mayonnaise-based dips (which we did), and buy kitchen gadgets and Oregon-themed linens (which we did not). From here, our travels took us up the coast to Rockaway Beach, where we tested the water temperature with tentative fingers and did our best to avoid the rain.

The drive back took longer because night was falling as quickly as the snow, but when we made it back into the city, we found ourselves back at Great Notion, where we met some family friends who had moved up to the Oregon coast. We left with a crowler of Peanut Brother, which was not available to-go the night before and set out in search of our final meal of 2016. Many restaurants were fully booked and had special tasting menus that night, but we found one that could seat a party of two. The restaurant, Tusk, was Lebanese cuisine via the Pacific Northwest in a delightfully retro-yet-modern pink pastel setting. The Lebanese flatbread and raw lamb dishes were both outstanding, but I think Victoria’s cocktail stole the show. The Eastern Maid is listed on the menu as “Prairie vodka, celery seed, lemon, rose water, hazelnut, yogurt,” but it is the final ingredient that made it such a standout. It was tangy, floral, slightly sweet, and utterly fantastic.

Latourell Falls

After a quiet New Year’s celebration, we made up our minds to get the tastiest brunch we could and settled on the aptly named Tasty N’ Sons, where we met our friends from the previous night. I was craving chilaquiles and the ones they had were quite good, as was the potato donut appetizer. My mezcal-based Bloody Mary was fine, but didn’t live up to the rest of the meal. Not wanting to miss out on all the natural beauty Oregon offers, Victoria and I drove out to the Columbia Gorge, where we stopped at Latourell Falls and the much more popular but ever-impressive Multnomah Falls. Snow began falling with increasing intensity so after getting the requisite photos of America’s second tallest year-round waterfall, we navigated back onto the 84 West bound for Portland.

Though quite popular, Voodoo Doughnuts no longer carries the appeal it once had (to me, at least) and I was more excited to try Blue Star Donuts when we got back into Portland. They’ve opened up shop in Los Angeles, and although I haven’t been yet, my first bite of the Blueberry Bourbon Basil donut made it pretty clear that I’ll visit the Venice or forthcoming Manhattan Beach location very soon. After satisfying my sweet tooth, I was thirsty again and though many businesses were closed on New Year’s Day, Deschutes’ Portland brewpub welcomed us with open arms. I tried their Peach Vice, an American Wheat Ale brewed with peach-forward aroma hops and Black by Hopular Demand, which I inferred correctly to be a Black IPA. These were both solid beers, but I still prefer their main production and seasonal releases that I can get in Southern California.

Our final stop of the weekend was the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, one of the longest tenured sour breweries in the U.S. (at over a decade old). I’ve enjoyed their beers for some time, and saw them as the forebearers to the clean, lactic-forward style now propagated by the Rare Barrel, among others. The price point for their beers is higher than most, so going to their Barrel House provided a good way to taste many of their beers without paying thirty dollars a bottle. My favorite beer was their Cranberry 2016, which was slightly spiced with orange peel and cinnamon. No trip to Portland would be complete without a stop here, and I’m glad I was finally able to make it.

There were plenty of other places we weren’t able to visit in our two and a half days, such as Pip’s Original Doughnuts, The Commons Brewery, Hopworks Urban Brewery, and a pizza place I like called Oven & Shaker. Luckily, Portland is more accessible than ever now that Southwest Airlines has joined JetBlue in making flights out of Long Beach Airport, which is incredibly close to me. Something tells me I’ll be back sooner rather than later.